Leaves on the Line – The Guardian

Shortlisted: The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism

For the People of Bolivia, Coca is a sacred plant, a traditional medicine and a source of income. For the US government, it is evil, to be eradicated at any cost. And as American-funded troops burn their way through tonnes of this year’s crop, the farmers are complaining of “cultural genocide”. Nick Thorpe reports…

ZENON Cruz bites another coca leaf from its stem, tongues it into the wad already bulging in his cheek and scowls up at the army helicopter hovering above the jungle canopy.
“My father sowed coca and his father sowed it before him,” mutters the peasant farmer, his teeth stained green. “What the North Americans do not understand is that this leaf is a gift from mother earth to our people, an ancient tradition. They do not understand its sacredness. They think it is all about drugs.”
Like the majority of campesinos gathered at this roadside protest in the tropical Chapare region of Bolivia, 29-year-old Cruz has watched a US-backed eradication squad hack away his entire crop and his main source of income.
Last year alone the soldiers destroyed a record 17,000 hectares in the region, and by the end of this year they aim to finish off the remaining 3,000, in a drive to strangle the US drugs problem at source.
The Bolivian government, under huge funding incentives from the States (it must be seen to be meeting drug eradication targets to qualify for development aid), calls the strategy Operation Dignity. Cruz and his struggling fellow farmers call it cultural genocide.
Andean peoples were using this hardy plant for a variety of ritual and health purposes for thousands of years before white men first learned to extract cocaine from it. Rich in vitamins and minerals, the leaves have traditionally been used to treat ailments ranging from dysentery to altitude sickness. The vast majority of Bolivians still chew them daily, mixing them with ash to create an anaesthetic effect on the stomach to ward off hunger. Death, marriage, and almost any other social or religious ritual here will include an offering of coca.
“Guard its leaves with love,” warned the 800-year-old oral poem Legend of Coca. “And when you feel pain in your heart, hunger in your flesh and darkness in your mind, lift it to your mouth. You will find love for your pain, nourishment for your body and light for your mind.”
But the seers also foretold that white man would find a way to subvert their “small but strong” plant: “If your oppressor arrives from the north, the white conqueror, the gold seeker, when he touches it he will find only poison for his body and madness for the mind.”
What the seers did not predict was the scale of the scale of the backlash. White man duly succeeded in extracting the 0.5 per cent alkaloid cocaine from the coca leaf at the end of the 19th century, Dr Sigmund Freud become the first to contract nasal cancer from snorting it, and all hell broke loose.
Eradication attempts first began in 1949 after a study by a North American banker, Howard Fonda, claimed that the chewing of the plant was “responsible for mental deficiency and poverty in Andean countries”. Soon afterwards, in 1961, the UN placed coca on schedule one, branding it one of the most dangerous and restricted drugs. Of course, this had no effect on US cocaine use, as executives snorted lines while the ghettos opted for the cheaper and more dangerous relative, crack. By the 1980s, more than half the world’s cocaine was being consumed by the superpower representing just five per cent of its population. Bolivia, one of the world’s poorest nations, saw an opening in the market and filled it. It was to become the world’s second largest producer of coca and cocaine paste.
Now, under the concerted eradication first initiated by Ronald Reagan in his War on Drugs, it’s payback time. Bolivia is being punished for its recent complicity with the destruction of its ancient culture.
Not without a fight, however. “Go home Yankees!” shouts a furious Quechua woman in a bright shawl and bowler hat, marching with hundreds of others under banners calling for farmers’ human rights to be respected. The helicopter keeps its distance, and the DEA officials rarely show their faces outside the confines of the nearby army base.
Zenon Cruz denies supplying the drug barons with his coca, but admits there were plenty who did. At the height of the trade, light aircraft landed regularly on these roads to pick up consignments. “But they are punishing us all – legal and illegal together – and everyone is struggling,” he says.
Coca, a hardy plant ideally suited to tired or eroded soil, could produce three or four harvests a year. Now forced to grow beans and oranges instead as part of a US-funded “alternative development” plan, Zenon must feed his family on a fraction of his former income. “You can fill a lorry with oranges and not sell any of them at market, but coca always sells like hot bread,” he says. “I was making 150 Bolivianos [about £20] a week before they cut down the coca. Now we sometimes struggle to make 20 [£3]. How can you feed a family on that?”
Other families still risk everything for a higher income. A few miles down the road, at the military base in Chimore, a 16-year-old local girl is being paraded before the press. Alcira Marin has just cracked after three days of interrogation and admitted to smuggling coca paste inside her body. The evidence lies in 40 pellets wrapped in yellowed Clingfilm, on a table beside her. “I was paid 300 Bolivianos [£40] to do it,” she mumbles. “I didn’t know I would die if one broke inside me.” Under the country’s harsh and US-influenced Law 1008, she faces between five and eight years in prison.
Later, in thick jungle barely ten minutes walk from the main trunk road, Captain Luis Castro, of Bolivia’s elite US-funded counter narcotics police force, UMOPAR, shows me a cocaine pit his patrol have discovered this morning. In a six-metre polythene trough, heaps of fresh coca leaves lie half-trodden into greenish pulp, while older, browner leaves are piled a metre high at the edge of the jungle clearing. The workers, whoever they were, have disappeared, probably warned by two-way radio. “Burn it!” barks Castro to his khaki-clad men, who begin scooping gasoline from a plastic separation tank hung between stakes.
“Judging by the amount of used coca here, I’d say they were working constantly for about three months,” he tells me. Typically, eight men would stomp around this trough for 12 hours to turn more than 350 kilos of leaves, mixed with kerosene, into one kilo of pastabase, the crude paste from which cocaine must in turn be refined. Most would expect to earn up to £3 an hour, which is certainly tempting when you compare it with £3 a week for growing oranges.
At an order from Castro, a man pulls the pin on an incendiary bomb and tosses it into the centre of the pit, sending flames and smoke billowing upwards towards the jungle canopy. “We use their own gasoline to put them out of business,” says Castro, whose cohorts have destroyed 275 similar pits in the first six months of this year alone. “We’re not going to lose to the drugs people,”
There is no doubt that the net is tightening, but the effect may simply be to drive up prices and encourage new markets elsewhere. Anti-drugs police estimate that the little more than three tons of pastabase will leave the Chapare this year, but this alone will generate some $4 million, thanks to a 300 per cent price increase over the last three years. Critics of the eradication policy argue that it will simply drive producers further into the Bolivian Amazon region, or elsewhere in South America where an estimated 2.5 million square miles lie ripe for production.
“It’s simply the law of supply and demand,” says Kathryn Ledebur, co-ordinator of the Andean Information Network, a human rights watchdog publicising problems with the eradication effort. “It’s pointless trying to stop production in the producer countries – the place to fight it is where the market is.” The bigger picture is indeed discouraging. While Bolivia has fallen from second to third largest cocaine exporter behind Columbia and Peru, there has been almost no reduction in the amount of cocaine exported to North America and Europe according to the annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board. The explanation is that production has increased in Brazil and Colombia, where the governments have little control over their tropical territories.
“It’s an obvious case of the balloon theory in operation,” says Ledebur, herself a US citizen. “You squeeze it in one place and it’ll just expand in another – unless you tackle root demand. Instead we’ve got a war focussed on the poor people, and it’s not working.”
On a terraced hillside in the fertile Yungas valleys on the other side of the country, a small boy dressed in traditional poncho and woollen cap kneels to make his offering to Pachamama or mother nature. As he unwraps a cloth full of coca leaves, lights an incense burner and sprinkles alcohol on the ground, other children come forward to sing in Quechua:
Green coca, you are born of our land
Your fragrance makes us sing happily
In the fields among the mountains
My little coca leaf is sweet medicine
Not a drug that does damage
We suck your juices for help in our work…
It’s part celebration, part pre-emptive protest. The families of this region, the last remaining place of legal coca growing in Bolivia, know things could easily go the way of the Chapare for them. While Law 1008 currently provides for 12,000 hectares for traditional coca growing and distribution in the Yungas, US officials have been arguing that less than half that is needed for chewing or ritual uses.
“There is evidence that Yungas coca is being diverted to the illicit market for conversion to cocaine products,” says the latest US Embassy report on counternarcotics. Locals believe if they give in now, the NorthAmericans will simply carry on demanding more until nothing is left.
Eradication was supposed to begin here later this year, until the country exploded in violent protests over the issue in April. Coca growers dynamited the only road into the region, and the eradicators backed off – until next year. A tense stalemate continues, but nobody has any illusions that they will be back.
“The child in the USA learns that he must buy things in order to be happy, whether it’s Nike trainers or a gramme of cocaine,” says Javier Castro, curator of the Coca Museum in La Paz. “That’s the root of the problem, and everyone knows if they can’t get their drugs here, they will just go somewhere else. In the meantime they want to wipe out Coca completely – it’s a kind of cultural genocide. It’s going to be as if we have no soul, no spirit.”
Castro is one of many who have fought to have the coca leaf recognised as a potential health product rather than Schedule One drug. Western backpackers here drink coca tea constantly to ward off altitude sickness, and a Harvard University study found that 100 grams of Bolivian Coca more than satisfied the recommended daily allowance of calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A and riboflavin. Contrary to popular belief, the bust of energy it gives comes not from the 0.5 cocaine content – this is in fact destroyed by saliva in the digestive tract, which is why cocaine users must snort or inject – but from its conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, and its stimulation of the respiratory system.
With at least 30 Coca products already available in Bolivia, ranging from toothpaste to pick-me-up pastilles, campaigners argue that there is a potential for salvaging the livelihoods of thousands of poor farmers by marketing the plant in the west.
But the only company which has managed to get round the ban is the Stepan Company of the United States. In one of the howling ironies of the coca war, it legally imports 175,000 kilos of Chapare coca each year to manufacture, among other things, a de-cocainised flavouring for Coca Cola.

August 25th 2000

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